Interview – Mike Garson Talks David Bowie, Music, + More

Over the fifty plus years of his wildly diverse musical career, David Bowie had no boundaries. He weaved in and out of genres and styles without hesitation, and found success at every avenue. In that time, his nearly schizophrenic creativity inevitably would find him working with a list of other musicians, depending on what each piece called for at the moment. With a lengthy collection of talent to come in and out of the studio and perform on stage with Bowie, among them, was Pianist Mike Garson.

The longest and most frequent band member/collaborator of Bowie, Garson was a part of a lifetime of the legend’s recording sessions and touring. Arguably, who else could know the music much better? That is exactly why Garson has dedicated a great deal of his time and energy since Bowie’s passing to performing the music live to fan everywhere. Working with a list of well-known performers in the process, Garson has called on various alumni Bowie band members and now takes his A Bowie Celebration Tour on the road through 2019.

A tour which features Garson, Earl Slick, Carmine Rojas, and Mark Plati, along with world class vocalists such as Bernard Fowler, Gaby Moreno and Joe Sumner, among others, together, they will be performing a mix of Bowie’s hits and deep-cuts. Kicking off the extensive run on September 26th, Garson took the time to reflect on his time working with David Bowie, priding himself on musical diversity, the concept behind the A Bowie Celebration Tour, plus more. – You have been involved in music professionally over five decades. Working with everyone from David Bowie to Smashing Pumpkins, as well as solo material, how would you describe the musical journey?

Mike Garson – It’s, scarily enough, six decades, believe it or not. (Laughs) I played my first gig at fourteen, so it would have been around fifty-nine years ago. I’ve been playing ever since, probably five thousand shows or more. With David Bowie, I was privileged, considering I was hired for eight weeks and ended up doing over a thousand concerts with him and around nineteen albums – between live albums, bootlegs, studio albums, etc.

I didn’t even know who the guy was when he called, I was just a Jazz musician. I was playing Jazz clubs in New York. I had a family, and Jazz club money was very low and attendance was very low. I practiced eight hours a day, year after year, to get to these places, and it just seemed, how could I survive? As a joke, I said to my wife, “Maybe I should go out with a famous Rock band.” David Bowie called the next night, but I didn’t know who he was. Then, all of a sudden, I’m on the Ziggy Stardust first American tour. I did his first show in The States and I did his last concert in The States – which was an Aids benefit with Alicia Keys and myself; unfortunately it was not recorded. He was a dear friend and we miss him, that is why I am doing this alumni thing, I want to push his songs just as a songwriter.

Virgin – It is wonderful that you are able to take your vast experience working with David and apply it to something special like these show to honor his music. Tell us a little about who you have worked with and will be working with moving forward for this tour. 

Mike Garson – Over the last two years I’ve probably worked with two hundred singers. I am trying to get each singer to bring their own voice to his music – no one person can really encompass his genius. I have had so many great singers sit in or be part of the band. Because I’m using at least four alumni, who played with him for those last tours between 1999 and 2004, I’m able to have the music sound as it did with David – it’s just different singers.

There is Bernard Fowler, who has been with The Rolling Stones for thirty years as a background singer, but he is a great frontman. Then there will be Joe Sumner, Sting’s son, who has a great voice. Then we will have Corey Glover from Living Colour who has an amazing voice.

There will be many guest artists along the way that I feel can contribute something. A little over a year ago Sting sat in, Perry Farrell sat in, Gavin Rossdale as well. We go to a place like Amsterdam, and we will have a famous local singer there. It’s a joy and is continuously evolving the music. – It sounds very exciting and diverse. 

Mike Garson – Yes, it works with symphony, and it works with string quartets, because I know his music so well and I appreciate a great song. When I grew up, I listened to Gershwin, Cole Porter, Burt Bacharach, etc, but David has songs that are comparable, or even better. I am doing a mixture of song hits, but I am also continuously changing the show and throwing in more obscure pieces. It’s a very exciting endeavor.

The audience sings every song and they know every word. The day that stops, is the day I will stop doing it and go back to doing some of other activities, which I am still doing mildly on the side. I also do healing music, string quartets, and Jazz sextets combined with singers.  I have a very full life and I’m getting ready to embark on sixty concerts in the next five months, it’s extremely busy. Plus, I mix that with doing master classes at universities, private teaching, and Skype lessons. It’s almost at the verge of insanity, but that’s okay, music is what keeps me alive and vitalizes me. – Why stop? It is great to keep busy with something you live. Working with David Bowie, you were a part of some legendary albums, including 1973’s Aladdin Sane. What was it like being a part of all those recording sessions?  

Mike Garson – You know, when you’re in the moment doing it, you don’t think that way. I work with Smashing Pumpkins, Trent Reznor, Nancy Wilson, Gwen Stefani, Mel Tormé, etc. Each thing I work with is the best thing in the world at that second, at least that’s my attitude.

Now is there the regret, did I take some of that for granted? Probably not. I watch YouTube videos now and I see David from the front, I was behind him for thirty five years. I was seeing his back, and I watch these videos and I see his smile, humor, his admiration of the band, and sometimes how he looked over at me. I didn’t know any of that stuff, I was just trying to play the right chords! 

Virgin – (Laughs) It is interesting to look back in retrospective. You were a part of it all and now you can look at it from a different perspective.

Mike Garson – It’s a whole different perspective. For instances, I was offered twenty different tribute bands when he was alive. Why would I do that if I am working with the guy himself? Now that he is not here, I’m trying to continually find interesting singers. I am have done some shows alone, and other with Evan Rachel Wood, who is a great actress, but also a great Rock singer. Evan joined us a few months ago at LA at The Wiltern. She is going to join us at Humphreys in San Diego, as well as a few other places.

It’s ever evolving, I am changing music on the band every second. We also have Earl Slick, who was with us in ’74 on and off. We have Carmine Rojas playing bass on “Let’s Dance.” Gerry Leonard will be on guitar for some shows too.

It’s wonderful switching musicians. Two years ago, Lorde sang “Life On Mars” with us at the Brit Awards. It’s nothing I expected to happen at this point of my life. I was thinking I was just going to be doing my Jazz, Classical, healing music, and teaching. Now this takes up sixty percent of my time, plus I do the other stuff. Somehow because it’s music, I’m able to play whatever I play, it’s me wherever I am in whatever context. I have a vision and I give that in any context. I was starting to spin in my head and I realize it’s too much, until I realize, I play the piano, and it’s as simple as that. Wherever I am, I play the best I can – some shows are better than others, you give your best, and then you move on. – So many people know and adore the music of David Bowie, making this a very exciting tour. A Bowie Celebration will extend well into 2019 with various dates around the USA. Seeing you and the members of the band have history together, what is like for you to get out there with this group of musicians on stage at this point?

Mike Garson – A few months after David passed, we had Gail Ann Dorsey on bass, Sterling Campbell on drums, Earl Slick, Gerry Leonard, etc. It was very cathartic, very sad, and we would be on stage crying trying to get the notes out. It’s been almost three years since he has passed, now it’s just respecting and keeping his music alive.

I can easily play his music because I understand it, encompass it, was part of a creative process, not as purely a piano player, but I was there contributing thought-wise, arrangement-wise, musically. I can do it with any number of musicians around the planet, but there is something very exciting about doing it with four or five alumni. – Most certainly. As you mentioned, you came from a Jazz background. Over the years, you have worked with a lot of different musicians in various genres. How important is musical diversity to you?  

Mike Garson – It’s very important because I just play and here what I feel at any given moment. I was just one of those guys who loved a lot of music. Back in the ’60s, my Jazz teachers were resentful that I was crossing into Classical, Pop, and Fusion. They were wrong, but they accused me of being eclectic, as if I had a disease or something.

I just heard a lot of music. I brought a Jazz and Classical history to David’s music. He was smart enough, because he was the ultimate casting director at who he chose. Everyone he chose was perfect for what he needed at the time. 

Between ’72 and ’74, David had five different bands. Everyone got fired, except me, because I could change styles. It wasn’t due to personality or friendship. I was more than just a Rock, Gospel, Jazz, Pop, Classical, or an avant-garde musician. That is because I dedicated my life to practicing, so whatever I was doing, I was do it for eight hours a day and I would go out and play a six hour Jazz gig. My whole life, I was submerged in Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Art Tatum, Keith Jarrett, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, it was never-ending.

So consequently, David took all that history I brought and I put it like whipped cream on top of his music when appropriate through the years. It probably made a big imprint on at least sixty of his songs, as well as probably three to five very big impacts. There were also albums I wasn’t on, and he did fine with some great musicians. There was some great things I played on, I’m proud of it, and that is probably why I am called to do these concerts over the next few months. – Yes, and there have been more and more A Bowie Celebration Tour date announcements coming since you started it all. 

Mike Garson – It’s expanding because people want to hear his music and there are hundreds of people singing, recording, alone or with tribute bands. Let’s face, I’m the last man standing here, there is Tony Visconti obviously, but he is more of a producer. He was around with David maybe even longer than me. You have various alumni all around the world, and from time to time I’m hoping to grab them to play with us.

David has had a lot of people contribute, and unfortunately we have sadly lost a lot of them. We lost Dennis Davis who was our drummer on the Young American Tour, Luther Vandross who was my background singer when I was the musical director back in 1974. Many have left us. 

Columbia – It is a great honor to David Bowie’s musical genius and as the tour implies, it is A Bowie Celebration! Last question. CrypticRock also covers movies, particularly Horror and Sci-fi. If you are a fan of either genre, do you have any favorites? 

Mike Garson – I did the music with Billy Corgan for Stigmata in 2000. I did a lot of the composing for that movie. Yes, I love Sci-fi, not big on Horror. As a composer, I can write music to pretty much any film, because again, I have all that kind of training.

I am looking for a film that feels right. I am sure it will come. I am a fan of that world for sure. My thing would be a piano score for a film or a Jazz score. I want to do something that my voice as a pianist and composer comes through. Like I said, everything that has happened to me, that has been great, just came about. I actually just did the opening theme for a series that is going to come out next year for HBO for Watchmen. Trent Reznor is doing the music, but they asked me to write the first opening theme on piano.

Tour Dates:
Wed 9/26 Ventura, CA Majestic Ventura Theater
Thu 9/27 Riverside, CA Fox Performing Arts Center
Fri 9/28 San Diego, CA Humphreys Concerts By the Bay
Sat 9/29 Reno, NV Silver Legacy Resort Casino
Sun 9/30 Saratoga, CA The Mountain Winery
2019 Tour Dates:
Wed 2/6 Mesa, AZ Mesa Arts Center
Thu 2/7 Los Angeles, CA Orpheum Theatre
Sat 2/9 Cerritos, CA Cerritos Center
Sun 2/10 Modesto, CA Gallo Center
Tue 2/12 Livermore, CA Livermore PAC
Wed 2/13 San Francisco, CA The Warfield
Fri 2/15 Seattle, WA Benaroya Hall
Sat 2/16 Vancouver, BC Commodore Ballroom
Sun 2/17 Portland, OR Revolution Hall
Tue 2/19 Denver, CO Paramount Theatre
Thu 2/21 Madison, WI Orpheum Theatre
Fri 2/22 Chicago, IL Vic Theatre
Sat 2/23 Detroit, MI Royal Oak Music Hall
Sun 2/24 Cleveland, OH Agora Theatre & Ballroom
Tue 2/26 Buffalo, NY Town Ballroom
Wed 2/27 Kitchener, ON Centre In The Square
Fri 3/1 Toronto, ON Danforth Music Hall
Sat 3/2 Montreal, QC MTelus
Sun 3/3 Boston, MA Wilbur Theatre
Tue 3/5 New York, NY Irving Plaza
Wed 3/6 Albany, NY Palace Theater
Thu 3/7 Syracuse, NY Palace Theater
Sat 3/9 New Brunswick, NJ State Theater
Sun 3/10 Philadelphia, PA Keswick Theatre
Tue 3/12 Louisville, KY The Brown Theatre
Wed 3/13 Nashville, TN Polk Theatre
Fri 3/15 Ponte Vedra, FL Ponte Vedra Concert Hall
Sat 3/16 Fort Lauderdale, FL Parker Playhouse
Sun 3/17 Clearwater, FL Capitol Theatre
Wed 3/20 Houston, TX Heights Theatre
Thu 3/21 Austin, TX Paramount Theatre
Fri 3/22 Dallas, TX Majestic Theatre

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